Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Chinese Stomach Changing The Face of High End Los Angeles Shopping Malls

Among the communities in the Los Angeles area where one would not expect to find authentic Chinese food are Glendale, Costa Mesa, Century City and Culver City.  This is because of the relatively sparse numbers of Chinese residents in the immediate area that would appreciate more authentic Chinese food.  Yet, within the next few months, all of these communities will have purveyors of authentic Chinese food, and all within the confines of the regional shopping mall in these areas, a far cry from the days when we went to the mall for an Orange Julius.

In my recent Menuism article, I discussed the phenomenon referred to as the Chinese stomach.  The Chinese stomach describes the situation where Chinese tourists traveling abroad will seek out local sources of Chinese food, even bad Chinese food, rather than eating the cuisine of the host country.  The Chinese stomach is something that has always existed and you can read that article for the possible reasons.

But what has changed in recent months is the surge of upscale Chinese tourists visiting the shopping malls of Los Angeles.  At the fanciest area shopping malls, such as South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Chinese tourists have become so conspicuous that every upscale designer store has one or more Chinese speaking staff to serve these tourists.  And as the Los Angeles Times reported last year, these Chinese tourists were vociferous about the lack of Chinese dining options in the mall.  In order to placate their Chinese clientele, South Coast Plaza sought to establish an authentic Chinese restaurant in their mall, and came up with a real prize, Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese based chain best known for its xioalongbao, sometimes known as soup dumplings.  Din Tai Fung only has three American locations, two in Arcadia, CA within yards of each other, and the third in Seattle.  Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay area and in New York City have been clamoring for their own branch of Din Tai Fung.  But the next Din Tai Fung is coming to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Mere days after the announcement of Din Tai Fung's upcoming branch in Costa Mesa came the announcement of  another Din Tai Fung--in the ritzy Americana Shopping Mall in Glendale.  By ordinary standards this announcement was stunning.  While there were no authentic Chinese restaurants in Costa Mesa, reflecting the demographics of the immediate area, there is a large Chinese population in nearby Orange County communities.  But there is no Chinese community anywhere near Glendale, and the only authentic Chinese restaurant that dared to open up in Glendale, Chang Woo BBQ, shut down years ago.   But the Chinese stomach explains it all.  Strangely, however, the Glehdale Din Tai Fung apparently will only serve xiaolongbao on weekends.

Not to be outdone, the Century City Shopping Mall has lined up Meizhou Dongpo to open up in the next few weeks.  Meizhou Dongpo is a Chinese restaurant chain based in Beijing, and their Century City mall branch will be their first American location.  Since Meizhou Dongpo specializes in the spicy food of Sichuan province, it will be interesting to see how their menu will or will not be altered.  And props should be given to the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, hardly in the same upscale category as South Coast Plaza, the Americana or Century City mall, which two years ago had the foresight to open up a branch of San Gabriel Valley's 101 Noodle Express on their premises, despite the lack of any critical mass of Chinese constituents in the area.

And the Chinese stomach is marching beyond the regional shopping mall.  Universal Studios in Universal City has added Chinese selections to the menus at many of their restaurants.  Like the regional malls, Universal Studios wants to make sure that their Chinese tourists don't leave the premises in search of a Chinese meal, and not to return.  And a nondescript Chinese restaurant in Los Feliz has a separate Chinese menu for Chinese tourists visiting nearby Griffith Park.